Saturday was a big day for the Knights of Columbus, and, for a change, it had nothing to do with Kamala Harris.
The Catholic Church at a mass in Connecticut beatified the fraternal order’s founder, Michael McGivney. McGivney, who died young in 1890, battled the 19th century’s prevailing mood of anti-Catholicism to build what is still the most consequential lay religious organization in the United States.
The reasons for his success are many, enough to fill an entire book. McGivney established the Knights in 1882 to provide insurance to Irish Catholics rejected from similar safety nets in New England clubs, societies, and labor unions. The organization quickly grew beyond that purpose and became an endeavor, Supreme Knight Carl Anderson told me, to prove that it is possible to be “a good American and a good Catholic at the same time.”
The Knights tackle that task in two ways. Members do the groundwork of holding community events that even non-Catholics attend: fish fries, charity events, and Thanksgiving Day parades. The group’s leadership also positions itself as a Catholic anti-defamation watchdog. It frequently speaks up on religious liberty issues. The Knights famously took the Ku Klux Klan to the Supreme Court in 1922. It was instrumental in inserting the word “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance. And it was one of the leading Catholic voices in the 1950s for racial integration.
Many of the Knights’ other fights are ongoing. Members lead the March for Life every year. Three members of the order in 2018 faced a harsh line of questioning from Democratic senators after President Donald Trump appointed them to sit on appeals courts. In the most notorious instance, Sens. Mazie Hirono and Kamala Harris demanded that the appointees leave the organization because of its opposition to abortion and gay marriage, which Hirono called “extreme.”
The moment, as well as other instances of apparent bias against religious affiliation, was a powder keg whose explosion affected judicial appointments all the way to the nomination and confirmation of Justice Amy Coney Barrett. It led Senate Republicans to declare the questions an attack on the Knights and tantamount to an unconstitutional “religious test.”
Lost in the fray, however, was the Knights’ response to Hirono and Harris. Rather than lash out at the senators, who received censure from their Republican colleagues anyway, the organization approached them with good humor. The local Washington, D.C., chapter sent a message to the two, forgiving their ignorance. It also invited the senators to join the Knights in their annual “polar plunge,” a winter event where members strip to their shorts and jump into a freezing kiddie pool.
Neither Hirono nor Harris took them up on the offer.
Incidents like this show the Knights at their best and most successful. Being a good American is hard enough. And being a good Catholic? It’s near impossible. The only path to success in either — at least in my limited experience — is to not take yourself too seriously.
I didn’t realize this until one day after mass a Knight explained their strategy to me. I’ve known him since I was a child, and he wanted me to join. He is graying, unmarried, and lives with his aging mother, for whom he cares. He also nearly always has a few cigars peeking out of his breast pocket.
“I’d sponsor you,” he told me. “You wouldn’t even have to come to all the meetings. Tons of people don’t.”
It was a tempting offer. Most Knights, he told me, join for two reasons. The first is peer pressure exerted by middle-aged Catholic men such as himself. The second is the benefits that come with a membership. Knights get access to their banquet halls, swimming pools, tennis courts, and, of course, a lifetime supply of Miller Lite.
Underlying all that is the common understanding that if a guy is going to make it in America, either as a citizen or Christian, he’s going to need a whole army to back him up.
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